Safe Routes to Schools: Getting the Message Right

Walking to School

Image by Ed L, via Flickr/Creative Commons

Safe Routes to Schools is a state and federal program that assists communities in fixing development problems that make it unwieldy for children to bike or walk to school. Through competitive grants and education, Safe Routes encourages communities to bring back the practice of getting to school under kid-power, reducing obesity and greenhouse emissions.

One of the big challenges of Safe Routes, however, is the community buy-in. Up in Anoka County, Blaine is currently bickering about using a Safe Routes grant to create some “missing sidewalk” between several prominent through-streets and an Intermediate/Middle School campus (grades 4-8). Key in the first round of resistance is reluctance to put sidewalks in people’s yards.

And that’s the first challenge of Safe Routes: The neighbors “losing” lawn are not going to be key beneficiaries of the program. They give up lawn, and gain shoveling responsibilities. They get more kids walking past their house and shedding litter, which wasn’t part of the deal when they bought their property. They get construction noise. So they’re going to be opposed.

To overcome that opposition, a Safe Routes program needs a strong show of support from parents. Parents are going to be the people encouraging/facilitating use of new infrastructure for kids to get to school. Getting parental buy-in is a challenge:

  • Perceived safety is an issue for many parents, who either see the lack of infrastructure as a deal-breaker, or who worry about stranger-danger, poor impulse control among their children, bullying and other issues that center around how kids behave.
  • Many kids do not walk to school due to parental work responsibilities. Many kids are in before- and after-school programs that reflect the work hours of their responsible parents. This results in early drop off/late pick up,and parental desire for speed in order to reach additional activities or dinner.
  • The US Census Bureaureports that only about 23% of kids stay at home with a responsible parent, usually a mom. Compared with other moms, these moms are younger, poorer, non-white/foreign-born, and less educated than mothers in the work force.And please — don’t just say “but not in Blaine!” While some Blaine stay-at-home parents may be well-to-do, in the neighborhoods closest to the Intermediate/Middle School currently in the spotlight families can buy a non-foreclosure home for $150,000 or less, and there are several nice manufactured home communities in the school attendance area. This is not relentlessly upscale.
  • Depending on the background of the parents, cutting across lawns or even walking in the street near the school may not be perceived as especially unsafe. This can be particularly true with immigrant communities.

Meanwhile, the arguments for SRTS are very grounded in the world of bike/walk advocates, who tend to be whiter, more employed, more educated and more male than core communities who need to buy in. Potential program beneficiaries are not necessarily oriented to attending public meetings or speaking up. The values espoused by advocates are nice, but they may not be meaningful to a woman with primary child care responsibilities, who after a long day of chasing the kids isn’t popping into her car to go to a public meeting.

An end result is going to be a victory for the NIMFY crowd, because they are property owners who attend public meetings and vote. City council members feel affinity with these people, as these people are their constituency — in Blaine right now, and elsewhere during other discussions and grant processes. The big challenge here is for advocates to bust out of their advocacy bubble and communicate meaningfully to neighbors and potential users of the program. Neighbors don’t care that Safe Routes make for healthier kids. Potential users have additional concerns that need to be addressed — or have special communication needs.

This lack of buy-in at the local level is what’s driving the state and federal willingness to kill the program. Solving this challenge requires helping silent communities learn the benefits and find their voices — reaching out to communities that are almost entirely unlike the advocacy communities that have created the program, and letting them drive implementation, and define success. It’s a big shift for advocacy. It remains to be seen if this shift can occur.

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6 Responses to Safe Routes to Schools: Getting the Message Right

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 22, 2012 at 5:33 am #

    see this too: http://www.carthagepress.com/lifestyle/x179384150

    • Julie Kosbab February 22, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      See, I just don't know that for a lot of parents, the health argument works. Especially if you're dealing with communities where responsible caregivers may be first generation Americans — to many refugee populations, a wee bit of plump is considered a sign of prosperity. As is having a car at all, for that matter. For community members with time concerns, the thought of slowing down the day for the walk/ride to school is also hard to overcome with "fitness."

      I think public health works at a grant/funding level, but makes a tough grassroots sell. And you have to have the grassroots to have people using the project.

  2. Mike Hicks February 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    This reminds me of a quote from Schmidt on a recent episode of "New Girl" — "This is a horrible neighborhood — there are youths everywhere!"

    Kids should be taken as a sign of a neighborhood's vitality. Yes, they may make noise, drop the occasional piece of litter — but it's way better to let them be independent than to shut them down. Children are often far more apt to notice when something is out of place than adults are, so their presence on the street should really improve safety rather than take away from it.

    It's important for kids to have some unstructured time away from school and away from their parents. The way home may take a detour to a friend's house or a neighborhood park.

    I guess I find it a bit weird that parents feel such an incredible need to be in control of every moment of their kids lives as we live in the age of cell phones — there's more ability than ever for kids and parents to keep each other informed about their current and future locations.

    I don't think that after-school activities should fill the entire gap between the end of a school day and the time at which a parent can pick them up. Maybe in the earliest years of school, but I'd most likely trust a 4th grader to handle themselves at home for an hour between the end of those activities and the time a parent gets back.

    But really, I think the most effective thing is probably to take these community members who oppose the sidewalks out and show them what the problems are that the program is attempting to fix. Let them see where kids can get stymied by the lack of infrastructure.

  3. Julie Kosbab February 23, 2012 at 6:17 am #

    Something interesting in this particular instance that I mention elsewhere is that the school in question is in a district that is quite literally exploding at the younger grade levels right now (K-3). They're looking at how to allocate school space for the future given that they had something like 4x the number of kindergarteners enroll last fall as expected. So this is a school complex that if not at capacity, will be in the coming years unless everyone moves away or gets enrolled in private school when the economy improves.

    This is also one of the only schools in the district that can be helped with reasonably-sized grants. Due to the nature of the streetscape in much of District 16, there are limits to how you can improve the walkability in many cases. One of the key K-3 facilities is much like Bailey School in Woodbury — a few grants can't make it walkable, because it was built as a fortress, not as a community fixture.

  4. Alex Bauman
    Alex Bauman February 23, 2012 at 6:44 am #

    I walked about a mile to and from school every day for two or three years of my childhood, and fondly remember the unstructured time, although my mom tells me she felt worry and shame at the time, and blocks her ears when I tell her about the snow caves we made in the giant snow dump at the edge of the school parking lot. We had sidewalks on the through streets and off-street trails, though.

    Personal matters aside, I wonder if Jefferson wouldn't be a better street for a sidewalk here? It seems to lie on a more useful route than the short Jackson. If Jackson is often used as an automotive through street to the school, it may benefit more from some through-traffic discouraging features, and then not need sidewalks. Personally I think that most suburban side streets are narrow and sparsely-used enough to not need sidewalks.

    The issue of how to get people who don't work 9-to-5 or may not share white middle-class values involved is a big one and is applicable to most of the topics we discuss on this site. Wish I had a decent answer, but thanks for bringing it up!

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